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Cosmetics adverts tell women they’re broken – new research

by on December 19, 2016 in Lead Article, Lead story, News you can use

Advertisements for make-up encourage women to see themselves as flawed and needing to be fixed, according to a linguist at the University of Portsmouth.

Dr Helen Ringrow, of the University of Portsmouth, found the underlying theme in advertisements for women’s cosmetics was their bodies need constant work to fix problems including dry hair, lack of glow and poor skin.

She said: “The language used tells women their faces, hair and bodies are always falling below some imaginary standard. It makes women feel they’re never quite measuring up, never quite right.

“It also creates problems we never knew we had, such as selling us deodorant which makes our underarm skin tone appear more even.

“The multi-billion pound beauty business thrives on making women’s bodies appear to be a flawed commodity which cosmetics can fix.”

Dr Ringrow studied cosmetics advertisements in Cosmopolitan and Elle magazines over a six-month period in 2011, exploring over 400 advertisements.

As a linguist, she had begun the research expecting to examine subtle linguistic differences in tone and language in French and English advertisements. The results showed many similarities, especially with the big global brands, but a subtle – and sometimes not-so-subtle – message kept appearing in both.

“The advertisements tell women that their bodies need endless work and that they are not quite good enough without the use of cosmetics.”

In addition to using sex and the promise of youthfulness to sell products, the industry’s advertising also relied heavily on scientific language.

“Women are bombarded by a cocktail of scientific words, sex and youthfulness in cosmetics advertising. You’ll find bold claims for the power of something scientific-sounding, like peptides or bio-proteins, which are not always proven, especially not in the small quantities in which they are found in many cosmetics products.”

Another common tactic in advertisements aimed at millions of women worldwide was the over-use of the word ‘you’, an attempt to personalise and make the consumer feel as though the advertisement is addressing them and their concerns directly.

While women are bombarded with claims about products, they may, of course, be sceptical about those, Dr Ringrow said.

Dr Ringrow, of the University’s School of Languages and Area Studies, released the results of her research in a book, ‘The Language of Cosmetics Advertising’, published by Palgrave.

Cosmopolitan magazine has a circulation of 280,000 in the UK, and 380,000 in France; Elle magazine has a circulation of 170,000 in the UK, and 380,000 in France.

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